France: yellow vests but no red flag

By Marc Lassalle

PARIS – WE ARE witnessing another of France’s powerful social movements. This time it is directed against the increasingly unpopular President Emmanuel Macron and his supposed eco-tax on petroleum products, which has seen the price of diesel jump 16 per cent in the last eight months.

On November 17, more than 2,000 road blockades were thrown up across the country, and more than 280,000 people were mobilised. One week later, the action was repeated with blockades and demonstrations in Paris and many towns and cities with around 100,000 people participating. Major rioting occurred on the Champs-Élysées.

The gilets jaunes, named for the high-visibility jackets French motorists must carry in their cars, have tapped into widespread discontent with rising taxes and prices, that have hit lower and middle income earners particularly hard. So far the movement has proved resilient with 70-80 per cent of the public backing it, despite the violence and the increasing profile of far right leader Marine Le Pen.

Organised through an online petition and social media channels, the scale of the movement took not only Macron’s government by surprise, but also most of the political parties and trade unions. The president has made conciliatory noises, but staked his political authority on refusing to give in to street protests. He insists the fuel tax will not be reversed.

Macron has already faced down the first wave of protests to his neoliberal agenda, when the trade union and working class organisations mobilised against his attacks on employment protections embodied in the Code du travail. These movements, with the leftwing CGT union federation in the forefront, denounced Macron as “the president of the rich”, and represented the resistance of the organised working class and its allies to the destruction of workers’ rights, job security, and social gains which benefit the whole population.

But although the yellow-coated protesters massing on the barricades also denounce Macron as an out of touch president, they represent an altogether different constellation of social forces, principally the rural and suburban middle classes whose profits are eroded by rising taxes, and workers forced to travel long distances to work through a combination of rising rents and cuts to suburban transport systems.

This makes the gilets jaunes a genuinely popular, ie multi-class movement, with a mass base to draw upon. But it also explains its indifference or outright hostility to the organised left and labour movement, and why, despite its formal ban on political parties, it has proven fertile ground for the conservative Republicans (LR) party and Marine Le Pen’s far right National Rally (RN), both of which have capitalised on the movement to take the lead in opinion polls for the forthcoming European elections.

However, the fact that the right wing bourgeois parties, the far right, and even outright fascist groups have participated in the movement with only token respect for its “non-political” status, is not simply explained by the petit-bourgeois social milieu. It is also a consequence of the failure of the working class organisations and leaders to rise to the challenge and defeat Macron’s offensive when the initiative was with them, following the severe electoral defeat for the Front National and Republicans.

The most high profile left leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, effectively refused to participate in the resistance, obsessed with seeing off electoral rivals to his Unsubmissive France movement. The politics of this ‘movement’, which is little more than an electoral cartel for furthering the ambitions of its leader, have degenerated into a squalid Republican patriotism that plays on anti-EU and anti-German sentiments to bolster its economic nationalist programme. The moderate trade unions like Force Ouvriere and the CFDT, more or less openly sabotaged the struggle against Macron, since they were acting as consultants on his plan to dismantle the Code du travail. 

The CGT, which did give a lead to the struggle in general, and that of the militant railway workers in particular, nevertheless misled the resistance by limiting the strikes to a series of scheduled one-day stoppages, designed to prevent the build up of momentum and generalisation of resistance that could turn the movement from a negotiation between the unions and Macron, and into a direct political challenge to the whole regime.

These failures meant not only that the government attacks succeeded, but worse, the working class allowed the initiative to pass to those who seek to rally the unorganised, or politically backward workers, as well as the lower ranks of the petit-bourgeoisie, to a different programme for addressing the very real sense of crisis.

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There is enormous and justified anger amongst “the people” at the government’s social attacks, rising prices, and failed promises. There is also the total arrogance of his self-described “Jupiterian” style. He presents himself as spearheading a movement for national, indeed European, renewal, by which he means the neoliberal reforms France’s business and political elite have been trying to impose for decades.

The tax hikes on fuel have gone alongside tax giveaways to the rich. These are supposed to encourage entrepreneurship, while his labour code reforms are to enable French employers to reproduce the low wage, insecure jobs, of the “gig economy” and thus massage down the stubborn 9 per cent unemployment rate. No wonder he is stigmatised as the president of the rich on both the populist right and the left. No wonder his approval ratings have dropped in opinion polls to around 20 per cent.

The movement of the yellow vests is clearly an expression of this widespread anger and frustration, a discontent that is all too understandable. However, this in itself does not answer the question of the political character of this movement or the direction it is likely to take.

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Like many other movements today, in Europe and beyond, it is not only a movement against the incumbent government, but against the “political class”, the “élite”. It  signals the loss of social and political initiative by the working class. This is not to deny the presence of large numbers of workers, particularly the low paid, forced to live a long way from the cities where they work, on the blockades and marches. Many reports suggest most have never been active in a social movement before and are participating in militant direct actions for the first time.

But the question of political leadership and direction is not a sociological question; it is a matter of the social goals of the movement, its relation to the working class movement and of its consciousness. Just to praise the movement as “spontaneous” does not solve anything. The old slogan common on the French left , ‘tout ce qui bouge c’est rouge’ (everything which moves is red) is just wrong. The right can move as well as the left.

Whilst the gilets jaunes movement is not (yet) completely dominated by mainstream bourgeois or far right forces, these have a very clear influence in it. In the first period, the most visibly active forces in the movement were the Republicans, and the RN. The RN has been acting in more covert way, but its cadres are clearly intervening nationally and locally in the movement and Marine Le Pen has been vocal in her support for it, encouraging her supporters to join the banned demonstration on the Champs-Élysées on 24 November. To some extent, the movement resembles similar protests at the birth of the Five Star Movement in Italy, or the right wing populist Poujadist movement in France in the 1950s.

The key demands against taxation on petrol and diesel and for lower prices are clearly taken from the arsenal of petit-bourgeois and populist movements. The labour movement’s slogans against regressive consumer taxes like VAT, and for progressive taxation on wealth and corporate profits, offer the real answer to how the state should raise necessary revenues, but the exclusive focus on lowering prices and taxation makes it much easier to rally different, indeed antagonistic, classes together, since every ‘citizen’ seems to benefit from this.

Clearly, the movement is not fascist, but it is dominated by right wing populism. The fact that a section within it also raises social issues and demands higher wages does not refute this. The right wing populists or even semi-fascist organisations are perfectly capable of adopting these.

At the same time, there have been sporadic instances of racism and homophobia on the blockades. A woman wearing a hijab was attacked. A truck transporting migrants was blocked and they were threatened with violence before being handed over to the police. Such overtly reactionary outbursts, even if not widespread, demonstrate the existence of a general consciousness that the movement exists to rally ‘white, French, citizens’, not the working population as a whole – including migrants, Muslims, Arabs, and the banlieues. 

The “spontaneous” tendency towards the right wing was fully revealed at the demonstration in Paris on 24 November. This demonstration of up to 10,000, about 10 per cent of the total nationwide, clashed with police on the Champs-Élysées with the fighting spearheaded by the fascist and semi-fascist forces to the right of RN. Whilst most of the demonstrators were probably not fascists themselves, they were clearly prepared to accept their lead on the day. The movement, and the main forces involved in it, have not called for a clear break with fascist elements like Les Identitaires, let alone tried to kick them out. On the contrary, they have played down their significance and involvement or even denied their reactionary character.

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Nobody will be surprised that the RN and Marine Le Pen collaborate with such forces, or that the Republicans and Sarkozy ally themselves with the enraged petit-bourgeois. However, Mélenchon and his France Insoumise outfit also wilfully turn a blind eye to the influence and danger of the far right. This is what “left populism” and “left patriotism” leads to: a gross adaptation to the real patriotism of one of the world’s oldest colonialist and imperialist bourgeoisies and the racism of the reactionary petit-bourgeoisie.

Downplaying these influences and the populist character of the movement, and thus its dangers, is unfortunately not only limited to the left populists. The far left Lutte Ouvrière group has also been adapting to the movement without any criticism. The same applies to a lesser degree to  other parts of the French left including the NPA and its spokesperson Olivier Besancenot, who gave an unqualified characterisation of the movement as “… a social uprising (fronde) against the cost of living”.

But faced with the indisputably anti-working class attitudes latent within the gilets jaunes movement, Besancenot does at least recognise the need for the labour movement to regain the initiative, and assemble a united front of the far left, the Communist party, Benoit Hamon’s Generation.s. movement, others, pointing to the need for action against the tax system, which “does not take money from the wealthiest, but favours the highest incomes such as the giant oil company, Total, which makes €9 billion in net profits and is exempt from corporate income tax.”

French workers do not need to petition the gilets jaunes for permission to launch a mass movement against Macron, based on the social force which has weight and power to defeat the government and open the road to an economic system which genuinely meets the needs of the masses. To regain the initiative, the working class organisations, the trade unions and the far left have to intervene in the political crisis – but not by adapting to petit-bourgeois forces, their populist ideology, or their methods of struggle.

The working class has to prove in action that it is a social force that can challenge Macron effectively and rally the masses, including the impoverished and lower sections of the petit-bourgeoisie and the middle strata, by combining the struggle the struggle against rising prices with a struggle against government attacks on the working class and the poor.

Such a movement could turn many thousands of ‘yellow vests’ into ‘red vests’. However this will be impossible for the movement as a whole; it needs to be broken up along class lines, not only socially, but also politically. There must be no collaboration with the fascist or racist forces like Les Identitaires or the RN, nor with the bourgeois Republicans. A clear break with them is a precondition for any collaboration with the gilets jaunes. 

Therefore, the CGT’s  call for a day of action of the workers’ movement against the Macron government should be supported by the whole labour movement and the left. The appeal to join this mobilisation should be equally addressed to all those workers mobilised in the last weeks, all blockaders willing to fight together with the working class. But this must not be repeat of the failed strategies of the past which have produced the demoralisation and disintegration that opened the door to the forces of despair.

Instead of one-day protests with no perspective and no control by the movement, socialists agitate within the CGT, SUD and other unions, within the reformist, and the far left, that the workers’ organisations unite in action around a programme of demands to address the immediate needs of the working class and the popular masses:

  • Repeal all the austerity, privatisation, and anti-working measures introduced by the Sarkozy, Hollande, and Macron governments
  • A minimum wage for all of €1800 per month
  • Scrap VAT and all taxes on popular consumption; raise wealth and corporation tax
  • The nationalisation without compensation of the energy and transport industries under workers’ control
  • A programme of socially useful works to rebuild public transport and infrastructure, for social housing and to address environmental needs under workers’ control, paid for by taxing the rich.